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Attacks/Breaches

Princeton Review Exposes Data on More Than 100,000 Students

Website configuration error left data accessible for seven weeks

A configuration error at test-prep firm Princeton Review left more than 100,000 students' scores and other data accessible for seven weeks to anyone who knew the right URL.

The breach, which primarily affected a large group of Florida students, was revealed in an article in The New York Times about The Princeton Review breach. The test-prep company has yet to make a public breach announcement of its own.

According to The Times, a flaw in configuring the site made it possible for users to type a simple Web address and gain access to hundreds of files on the company’s computer network, including educational materials and internal communications.

A rival test-preparatory company said it stumbled on the files while doing competitive research, and gave the URL to The Times on condition of anonymity. The Times informed The Princeton Review of the problem on Monday, and the company promptly shut off access to that portion of its site.

According to the report, one file on the site contained information on about 34,000 students in public schools in Sarasota, Fla., where The Princeton Review was hired to build an online tool to help the county measure students’ academic progress. The file included the students’ birthdays and ethnicities, whether they had learning disabilities, whether English was their second language, and their level of performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is given to students in grades 3 to 11.

Another folder contained dozens of files with names and birthdates for 74,000 students in the school system of Fairfax County, Va., which had hired The Princeton Review to measure and improve student performance.

The Princeton Review said the student information should have been protected by a password, but that the protection was most likely lost when the company moved its site to a new Internet provider in late June. The company said it was looking into how many people might have accessed the files, some of which could be found through search engines.

“As soon as I found out about this security issue we acted immediately to shut down any access to this information,” Stephen C. Richards, the company’s chief operating officer, told The Times. “The Princeton Review takes Internet privacy seriously, and we are currently conducting a review of all of our procedures.”

Natalie Roca, executive director for research and testing at the Sarasota County public schools, said she was “surprised and troubled” by the release of the student data. She said the student information the county gave to The Princeton Review to build the testing tool was strictly confidential.

In addition to the information on students, the site contained The Princeton Review’s educational materials for the LSAT, PSAT, and SAT exams, course schedules, an internal analysis of the effectiveness of the company’s instructors, and the entire texts of some Princeton Review books, like the 2008 edition of “Cracking the LSAT.”

The error indicates that The Princeton Review was storing both public data and sensitive proprietary data on the same server, The Times observed.

This isn't the first time that a large number of students' personal information has been found exposed on the Web. Just last year, a law school student found personal data on some 80,000 individuals in the Louisiana university system simply by Googling a series of search terms and studying the results. (See Leaks Found in Louisiana University Systems.)

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Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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